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CurtainUp DC  Report: January 1998
Part 1: New Plays about Playing, Casting and Shooting

by Les Gutman

January DC Report Topics
NOTE: The January Report is divided into two parts. (The second will be posted toward the end of the month.) Click on the links below to go directly to all of the topics once they are posted.

Playing Juliet/Casting Othello, by Caleen Sinnette Jennings
Shooting in Madrid, by Tug Yourgrau
Evolution of a Homeboy, by Danny Hoch - to be posted in Part 2
The Gene Pool, by Christi Stewart-Brown - to be posted in Part 2
Web pages mentioned in this report

The new year brings a new approach to CurtainUp's DC coverage. In addition to the monthly DC Report, there is now a main DC Reports page, from which all DC-related topics can be accessed, and an Annotated Address Book for DC. The former will include notable news items while the latter will provide information on the abundance of theater in the DC and Baltimore areas, including much we can't get to in the monthly DC Report. The monthly reports, in turn, will focus mostly on reviews and impressions of shows we have seen. Links to both new pages can be found at the end of this report.

This month, we will also be posting an interview with Ethan McSweeny, director of Signature Theatre's Never the Sinner that transferred to off-Broadway and is now transferring again, this time to a larger theater for an open-ended run. McSweeny is also directing Washington Shakespeare Company's The Triumph of Love which we will discuss with him in the interview. (When posted, the link below will take you to the interview.) 
Review: Playing Juliet/Casting Othello
In a season that has already seen a "photo-negative" Othello (in DC - our review is linked below) and is about to see an all-male version of Romeo and Juliet (in NY, and re-entitled R&J), the Folger and Source Theatre's world premiere co-production of Caleen Sinnette Jennings' Playing Juliet/Casting Othello seems right on target.  Jennings transforms theater from a mirror into a microcosm. The rehearsal hall becomes a platform for exploring our socio-cultural feelings about race, physical appearance, class, education and the like, while also reminding us (usually quite playfully) about the myriad of problems confronting a small theater company.

Race is not swept under the carpet here and there's no getting around identifying the characters by race. The cast is split evenly between whites and blacks. The first act revolves around a rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet featuring Georgia (Kila D. Burton) and Chris (Jeff Mandon) in the title roles. Georgia's problems, which seem related to her maintenance man boyfriend, Jimmy (Scott Leonard Fortune), make her a terror at rehearsals. Soon, tempers boil over and prejudices, suspicions and insecurities emerge. Was Georgia (a dark-skinned black woman who is not the picture of youthful beauty) cast as Juliet because the young white director (Susan Lynskey) is trying to prove something? Was Chris, a recovering coke addict, cast because his father is on the theater's board?  And so on.

In the second act, new prejudices manifest themselves as the company rehearses Othello. When the actor cast as Othello quits, Jimmy -- uneducated and untrained as an actor -- decides he can play the role. Along with examining whether theater should be the province of the educated, a look at the fault line between the perceptions of Othello by white and black audiences reveals a truly fascinating comment in what, for lack of a better description, I'll call a post-O.J. environment. The uneducated outsider understands the dignity of Othello in a way the others don't; the black women are offended by being cast as Emilia the maid and Bianca the whore.

Jennings has found a way to address these topics cleverly, with great humor and without a heavy hand. The performances are generally both strong and quite natural (with Fortune's Jimmy the clear winner), and the direction is careful and entertaining. The result is far from perfect (the resolutions are too facile, Jimmy's lack of training makes his studied rendering of Desdemona's death scene preposterous and the way all six actors pair off romantically is a bit too neat not to mention unneeded), but the spirit is there.

This play is not likely to be regarded as a masterwork, but it is a terrific learning tool. Performed by or for students of the theater (and I include all interested theater-goers in this), it can enhance understanding not only of the divergent perspectives and feelings that affect the theater, but of the underlying plays as well. Since it was written by a theater professor and produced at our most prominent Shakespearean educational institution, I suspect it has accomplished both of their missions quite capably. If it is produced over and over again on college campuses, I won't be surprised.
by Caleen Sinnette Jennings 
with Kila D. Burton, Scott Leonard Fortune, Steve Lebens, Rachel D. Spaght, Susan Lynskey and Jeff Mandon 
Directed by Lisa Rose Middleton 
Folger Shakespeare Library Elizabethan Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street SE (202) 544-7077 
Web page address is shown below 
January 9, 1998 - February 1, 1998
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Review: Shooting in Madrid
Signature Theatre could never be accused of lacking the courage of its convictions. It recognizes the vast importance of developing new plays and of giving them a public airing. Signature has a track record for doing both, certainly as well as anyone else in town at the moment.

Last season's harvest of new plays produced especially rich fruit at Signature, in the form of Norman Allen's Melville Slept Here. This season, Shooting in Madrid seemed to have all of the elements for a repeat success. Set in a fascinating time and place, featuring incredibly interesting characters, and with themes of history, romance and morality, the play is written by a Tony-nominated playwright (Tug Yourgrau), directed by the same director as last season's successful Melville (Tom Prewitt) and cast with a dead-on choice to portray the central character of Ernest Hemingway (Sam Tsoutsouvas). But it was not meant to be.

Shooting in Madrid is a fictional account of the true story of the 1937 visit of Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos (John Lescault), Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens (Paul Morella) and Martha Gellhorn (Rhea Seehorn) to the front lines of the Spanish Civil War. Dos Passos got Ivens and Hemingway involved in his idea of making a film in Spain, to stir up political support for the lifting of the Western arms embargo. Gellhorn, then a budding literary sensation, showed up to shed a little beauty on the proceedings and to provide a healthy dose of romantic tension for and between the three men. In the program notes, Tug Yourgrau says, "Spain proved to be a watershed in their lives." Indeed it was, with Hemingway the obvious winner, gaining an enhanced literary reputation and the girl. (Ms. Gellhorn became his wife.)
The perplexing question is: how can a story this filled with passionate characters and intriguing ideas come off as vapid as it does here? The answer, at least in the first instance, seems to fall on the playwright's shoulders.
Mr. Yourgrau is both a playwright and a filmmaker, and perhaps in the latter he found both his motivation for this play and also the seeds of its downfall. The moral confrontations arise from the ethics of filmmaking -- whether the need to get the "truth" on film (and to have the "umph" needed to get it seen) justifies lying and betrayal; whether it is more important to film than to alleviate suffering or save lives. But the play leaves the central questions -- what's at stake? what motivates these individuals? -- in a muddle. The audience is never made to understand or, for that matter, to care: indeed, whenever the story veers toward enlightenment, the antics of the principal characters seem to conspire against its undiverted attention.

The centerpiece of the production -- physically -- is a large screen on which snips from Joris' film are shown. (Yes, the movie was made, and the scenes shown on the screen are from the actual movie, The Spanish Earth.)  Hemingway's role was to write the narration, which he of course did; his writing about the war was memorable enough that it is now difficult to separate it from our images of that period. In Shooting in Madrid, we hear only a single moment of Hemingway's narration, but that moment is one of the play's fleeting highlights. Would that there had been more.

The feel of the play, both as written and as styled by director Prewitt, ranges from highly cinematic (mostly in the nature of a not-terribly-good 30's movie) to something more akin to the type of docu-drama likely to appear on television. It would seem the director never quite found the story in this script either, opting by default to emphasize style over substance.

The actors are similarly at the mercy of the script. Tsoutsouvas could not be more Hemingway-like, but to what end? He is left with little to do but entertain us. Lescault, Morella and Seehorn seem mostly lost in a bizarre parody, manufacturing drama when none is supplied. (Lescault suffers the greatest indignity in a frustrated flamenco tantrum that just may have been more real than we suspect.)

Lou Stancari's sets seem to rise above the rest of the proceedings. He continues to impress me with work that is simple, appropriate, functional and attractive.
by Tug Yourgrau 
with John Lescault, Paul Morella, Rhea Seehorn, Sam Tsoutsouvas and others 
Directed by Tom Prewitt 
Signature Theatre, 3806 South Four Mile Run Drive, Arlington (703) 218-6500 
January 6 - February 15, 1998
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Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
CurtainUp's new Annotated Address Book for DC
CurtainUp's interview with Ethan McSweeny (when posted)
Folger website:
CurtainUp's review of Othello

©January 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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